Recently I realized that my attention span and ability to focus have drastically reduced over the past 2 years. I initially waved it off as just my brain not being interested in those particular tasks but it became worrisome when I observed similarly high distractability for even stuff that I enjoy(ed). That and the loss of ability (to focus) being an impediment in me achieving my best finally got me to take this seriously. Luckily I also happened to stumble on an episode of Dr Cal Newport’s podcast “Deep Questions” where he tackles a similar question from someone else.
Dr Newport mentions that it is a good idea to train your concentration like an athlete would prepare for their sport. Athletes train themselves in 2 ways to keep in shape. There is the general fitness training which keeps their baseline in good form, and then they train specifically for the sport that they compete in. Similarly we also need to train our focus in 2 ways.
The general fitness training maps to “allow ourselves to be bored”. You should allow yourselves time where your brain gets bored of the thing it is doing without giving it something else to focus on while doing that task. For example if you are cleaning the dishes, don’t put on any music or podcast or audiobook in the background to listen to while cleaning the dishes. It is a boring task but allowing yourself to get bored in that way helps in breaking the pavlovian cycle that your brain has adapted to: whenever I get bored, that boredom can be cured by some stimulus.
Now you might ask as to why is it necessary to break that particular cycle? The answer to that is that the work you do on a day to day basis is not always stimulating which will cause you to get bored. If always that our mind gets bored we provide it with some stimulation it will expect similar stimuli while we are trying to work too. Thus distracting us and causing us to lose focus.
The next part is training specifically for the sport that the athlete competes regularly in. For us it means that we should start small and set periods of time where we try to focus solely on our work. If we get distracted during that time then we don’t count that session, we gotta reset the timer and start it again.
The above sounds like a simple set of actions to perform but personal experience dictates that it is so not the case. I found both the parts to be non-trivial. It goes so much against my instincts to let myself be bored. I would try to cram a podcast or a book or an article or atleast some music to rid my brain of the mental silence. Then the second part is equally, if not more, difficult. My focus has so deteriorated that I started by setting a 10 min timer to focus solely on a particular task, and I still failed. I have been working to increase that duration over the past week and finally I can regularly hit the 10 min mark without getting distracted (not a big thing for many people but trust me it feels good).
Feel free to reach out to me to discuss this or anything else under the stars over @varun_barad on Twitter.